Dan Ownby, BSA’s National Chair, talks Scouting’s bright future ahead

Dan Ownby talks to Cub Scouts at Thang Tien 10, the International Jamboree of Vietnamese Scouting, held in Houston in 2014. (Courtesy of Dan Ownby)

After a long, stressful meeting discussing bankruptcy proceedings with a Zoom full of BSA volunteers and professionals, Dan Ownby removed the figurative hat he wears as National Chair. Moments later, he put on a different hat: committee member for his nephew’s troop.

He logged into the committee meeting, and the vibe was quite different.

“Not one thing was said about bankruptcy,” Ownby says. “It was about who’s going to get the new tags for the trailer. And the two Scouts who are about to turn 18 but still lack a merit badge required for Eagle. And about how, ‘you know, we had a great campout last weekend and have this and that in lost and found.’”

The message was unspoken, but Ownby heard it loud and clear.

“Packs and troops and ships and crews are still out there working, and we’ve got to support them,” he says.

For Ownby, an Eagle Scout who says his time in Scouting “taught me more about leadership than any business school course,” this meeting was the latest reminder that the BSA movement is alive and well in communities across the country.

To make sure that remains the case, Ownby says the Boy Scouts of America must remain focused on “The Main Thing” — to use the phrase favored by former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, one of Ownby’s predecessors as National Chair.

“The bankruptcy has taken away focus. COVID has taken away focus. We need to keep the organization focused on a single goal,” he says. “And that’s getting as many young people as we can involved in Scouting — to do something great and to see this program’s potential.”

Keeping focused on that goal is one reason why Ownby’s term as National Chair will last three years instead of the standard two. At the BSA’s 2021 National Annual Meeting, held virtually in May, the volunteer-led National Executive Board decided to extend Ownby’s term by one year. Instead of ending his term in May 2022, Ownby will now serve until the 2023 National Annual Meeting.

At that May 2023 meeting, Ownby will pass his National Chair hat to Eagle Scout Brad Tilden, former CEO and now chairman of Alaska Airlines.

“He’s going to be great,” Ownby says of Tilden. “I’ve been impressed with him since Day One. He’s got the kind of financial mind that we’ll need in the next few years.”

As National Chair, Ownby is one of three members of the BSA’s National Key 3, joined by National Commissioner W. Scott Sorrels (another volunteer) and Chief Scout Executive/President & CEO Roger C. Mosby (a professional).

Adding a year to Ownby’s term was hardly all that was discussed at this year’s National Annual Meeting. Earlier this month, Bryan on Scouting caught up with Ownby to discuss the latest BSA news, his hopes for the organization and the vital role of volunteers in Scouting.

As we chatted via Zoom, Ownby sat outside at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico. Behind him, the skies were blue, the birds were chirping, and Scouts and Scouters walked happily to their next destinations.

In other words, it was business as usual.

In 2018, Dan and Allison Ownby (seventh and ninth from right) and the Report to the Nation delegates visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. (BSA photo by Michael Roytek)

Who is Dan Ownby?

Ownby’s Scouting résumé is many paragraphs long. He’s a Distinguished Eagle Scout, Vigil Honor Member of the Order of the Arrow and Silver Buffalo Award recipient. He was elected to and spent six years on the World Organization of Scouting Movement (WOSM) 12-person board, responsible for guiding the nearly 60 million Scouts in more than 170 countries.

But when we asked Ownby what he would most want his fellow volunteers to know about him, he talked exclusively about his time as a youth in Scouting. On his way to the Eagle Scout Award, Ownby served as a patrol leader and senior patrol leader and spent two summers as a Philmont ranger.

Those roles taught him about being a leader — even if he admits he didn’t always get it right.

“And you know what? It’s OK to make mistakes,” he says. “Scouting gives opportunities for young people to make mistakes in a safe environment.”

That experience prepared Ownby for a career in the energy industry, though he has never strayed far from his connections to local, national and international Scouting. In 2010, for example, he led the Sam Houston Area Council’s 27,000-attendee SHAC Jam — a camporee celebrating 100 years of Scouting.

Dan Ownby serves food at the 2011 World Scout Jamboree. (Courtesy of Dan Ownby)

News from NAM

This year’s National Annual Meeting was held virtually, with Ownby serving in the National Chair’s role overseeing the proceedings.

Here’s some of what was discussed:

Bankruptcy update

As expected, bankruptcy was on the minds of all volunteers and professionals present at the virtual meeting.

Ownby says the bankruptcy issue can be summarized in two key points: “One, we want to fairly compensate victims,” he says. “And two, we have a mission to Scouting. It’s important to American society because we produce leaders and we produce good citizens. That is something we need as a society.”

Bankruptcy and local units

Ownby says that the BSA has worked to insulate packs, troops, ships and crews from the bankruptcy as much as possible.

“I think that’s noise to most of them,” he says. “It’s not in their fundamental day to day. They’re more worried about the campout next weekend.”

National Service Territories

At NAM, volunteers learned that the BSA was streamlining its governance structure, moving away from regions and areas in favor of National Service Territories, or NSTs. There are 16 National Service Territories across the country, and it’s a good idea to take a moment to see which one you’re in.

The end of areas and regions will mean one fewer role for about 1,500 volunteers who work at the region or area level. Ownby plans to redeploy these great volunteers at the local level, helping them impact Scouting even more directly.

“Lots of volunteers did great work in areas and regions, but to streamline that into territories is going to do a lot of good,” he says. “We have to make sure that we’re not an organization that is wide and so spread out that we don’t have a common view of where we’re going.”

Diversity

Ensuring that Scouting accurately reflects the communities it serves was another big focus of conversation at NAM. To Ownby, diversity starts at the top by making sure that national committees have more women and people of color in their ranks.

“We need to look different, from the top down,” he says. “We need to consider what our primary audience looks like 20 years from now, and that’s what we need to look like. It’s not what we looked like in the 1940s. What does America look like in the future?”

Safety

Keeping young people safe is more than just a priority in Scouting. It’s a value that’s core to who we are.

At NAM, volunteers and professionals discussed ways to do that while continuing the kinds of adrenaline-filled activities that draw young people to our programs in the first place.

“It’s about designing policies and procedures that eliminate risk,” Ownby says. “Our goal is zero — zero incidents. It might seem to be impossible to reach, but it’s a great goal to strive for.”

And how is that done? It starts with encouraging a reporting culture — where units, districts and councils report information about their incidents.

Ownby says the BSA must look deeper into the data behind injuries that happen in Scouting, understand that data “and use that data to our advantage.”

The next NAM

While virtual National Annual Meetings have been a necessity the past two years, Ownby says the BSA is planning for an in-person gathering in May 2022. This event, which will combine the National Annual Meeting and the professionals-only Top Hands conference, will be held in San Diego.

“With COVID, we’ve had this hibernation,” Ownby says. “Next year, it’s going to be lots of friends seeing friends and discussions going on. It’s going to be a big rendezvous of volunteers and professionals who love the program coming together to give information and take information. We’re going to be back together.”

Not your grandfather’s summer camp

Because Ownby was at Philmont when we talked, it was natural for him to reminisce about his time as a ranger there. But, he admits, the BSA’s hiking paradise looks quite different from when he was employed there all those years ago.

There are new buildings, new trek itineraries, new backcountry camps.

But Ownby understands that these changes are necessary, and he welcomes them. Similarly, as we move deeper into Scouting’s second century, Ownby says the next years and decades of our movement might look a little different.

“We’re going to have less assets, less resources, maybe even fewer camps,” he says. “We’re going to see more volunteer engagement. Through it all, we’re going to remain focused on one thing: serving more young people in Scouting.”

Because at its core, Scouting happens at what Ownby terms “5th and Main.”

A month ago, Ownby took his nephew shopping to get ready for summer camp. Ownby helped him pick out properly fitting boots, asked him what he’ll need for merit badge classes and discussed what he hopes to get out of the weeklong adventure.

It occurred to Ownby that little moments like these are what Scouting is all about.

“That’s the excitement,” Ownby says. “It’s all about the experience that he’s going to have during that week. The unforgettable memories that each individual Scout gets to enjoy.”

About Bryan Wendell 3182 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.